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Israel-Hamas Gaza Truce Goes Into Effect

LAURIE COPANS and IBRAHIM BARZAK   06/19/08 04:33 PM ET   AP

Israel

SDEROT, Israel — Raz Elraz, for the first time, will be able to take his 14-month-old son to a playground in this rocket-scarred Israeli town. A few miles away in Gaza, Palestinian teenagers ride their bicycles, and Hamas guards play pingpong.

The six-month truce that took effect Thursday was welcomed by both sides, although the Palestinian economy is still being held in check by a closed border.

The cease-fire is meant to end Palestinian rocket barrages and Israeli reprisals in Gaza that have killed more than 400 Palestinians _ many of them civilians _ and seven Israelis in fighting since the Islamic Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip a year ago.

Halting all violence is the first step of the deal. If it holds, succeeding stages will see Israel easing its blockade on Gaza and negotiations will resume on the release of an Israeli soldier held for two years by Hamas-linked forces and on opening the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will fly to Egypt next week for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Olmert's office said. The statement indicated the talks were not linked with a prisoner exchange, but Israel's chief negotiator on the prisoner issue is also due in Egypt on Tuesday.

Much is at stake. If the truce fails, Israel has warned it will launch a large- scale invasion of Gaza, despite warnings of high casualties on both sides. That could prompt the moderate West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to call off U.S.-backed peace talks with Israel.

While Abbas has little control over the daily life of the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza since Hamas overran the territory and ousted his security forces, he wants to strengthen his image in both territories as he tries to negotiate with Israel.

As the sun set on the first day of the truce, there were no reports of fighting. The last truce, in November 2006, lasted only weeks.

On the Israeli side of the Kissufim crossing, Israeli soldiers played soccer near their tanks. In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, grinning Hamas security men in camouflage uniforms played pingpong while their colleagues sat nearby, their guns resting on their laps.

Along Gaza's border fence with Israel, Palestinian teenagers celebrated the truce by riding bicycles in the area that just a day earlier was a combat zone. Palestinian children flew kites on the beach in Deir el-Balah, central Gaza Strip.

In Sderot, Elraz said he didn't trust the truce enough yet to let his son, Itai, play outside.

"It will take a very long time to persuade Sderot residents that there is calm," said Elraz, 30, from the bar of his pizza restaurant. "We need peace. As long as there is no peace, there is no quiet and there's still war."

Other Israelis were similarly skeptical.

"I give it a week at the most." said David Cohen, 38, as he sold cigarettes and soft drinks at his kiosk. "I pray that it will last longer, but I consider each day more a bonus."

Even so, Cohen said he hoped to take his children out for a bike ride on Saturday for the first time in years.

In Gaza, Palestinian Ahmad al-Smari also wasn't ready to be too hopeful.

"We want a real end to all violence, to feel like we are human, to sleep without fear and to farm without fear, to eat, drink, study, travel," said al-Smari, 38. "I don't think that Israel is ready to give that to us now."

Sderot, less than a mile from Gaza, has borne the brunt of Palestinian rocket attacks in the past seven years, killing 13 people, wounding dozens, causing millions of dollars in damage, and disrupting daily life and ruining the economy. More than 1,000 projectiles have exploded in the town of about 20,000 people in the past year alone.

For many Palestinians, the key was opening the crossings. Israel's deputy defense minister said more trucks would bring vital supplies to Gaza starting Sunday, and a week later, building supplies would be let through.

"I don't want to have too much hope until I see something really coming through the crossing," Issa Ali, 55, said as he smoked a water pipe outside his idle cement block factory near the Karni crossing with Israel.

"Life has stopped in Gaza for the past year. ... Will Gaza rise again? I do not know. You can ask them," he said, pointing his finger to the Israeli side.

The yearlong international boycott of the Hamas regime has plunged crowded Gaza ever deeper into poverty. About 80 percent of its 1.4 million residents depend on food aid, according to U.N. figures.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed hope the truce would "provide security and an easing of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and end rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli targets."

Officials on both sides mirrored their citizens' skepticism.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said Israel would "fully implement all its commitments" but added, "Our eyes are open, we are closely following what the other side is doing."

In Paris, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the truce might last only days or weeks. "It is a very fragile cease-fire, but we think that before we enter a major (military) operation, we should give it a chance," he said.

Hamas does not recognize Israel and refuses to renounce violence. Israel, the U.S. and the European Union regard Hamas as a terror organization and do not deal with it, so Egypt had to act as a mediator, working for months on the unsigned truce accord.

In an e-mail message to reporters, the Hamas military wing declared itself "completely and comprehensively" committed to the truce. But it added that Hamas gunmen were ready to "launch a military strike that will shake the Zionist entity state" if Israel did not abide by all its commitments.

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Copans reported from Sderot, Israel; Barzak reported from Gaza City.

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Filed by Max Follmer  |